Episode 70The Sonic Origins of Electronic Dance Music
My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music
Trying to understand the evolution and history of electronic dance music (EDM) is a daunting task. We’ll explore some of the sonic roots to see how we got to EDM—a beat-driven music powered by electronics and often focused on creating a trancelike musical state.
One begins by tracing various dance music precursors, from funk, to disco, hip-hop, and even dub. All contained elements that were borrowed and reassembled to form what is at the center of EDM—a beat-driven music powered by electronics and often focused on creating a trancelike musical state. House music, trance, electro-funk, acid house, and rave are all styles of modern EDM. Live performances of EDM are done primarily by solo DJs who have become experts in remixing, using electronics, and bringing an audience along in performance. So, I’ve always been fascinated by how we got to this fully electronic, DJ-based music. What were the musicians and recordings that led to the emergence of EDM? In this episode, I have tried to find examples from the Archives of precursors of EDM, similar although often disconnected sonic threads in electronic music from the 1970s and 1980s.
My goal here is to focus on the elements of the music that distinguish it from other electronic music. What are the sonic elements of EDM and where do they originate?
Let’s begin by listening to what is considered an early example of EDM. "On and On" produced in 1984 by Chicago DJs Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence is sometimes called as the first house record. It embraced the technology and automation by using the Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer, a Roland TR-808 drum machine, Korg Poly-61 synthesizer, and minimal vocals. This was reportedly the first record made by a house DJ that was produced for the public.
By reverse engineering a track like this we can begin to hear characteristics that are common to most electronic dance music: Electronic sound sources, especially types that are easily programmed and operated in a live situation; repetition in patterns; music that is beat-driven and generally sparse on lyrics; and the artist reserves a spot for solo musicianship. The soloing may in fact come from manipulating various controls and buttons, or it may come from a more overtly inserted musical passage played on a keyboard, all to inject a touch of personal expression to the automation.
There is an important cultural perspective around EDM that needs to be acknowledged. It was really made possible by gatherings of people at clubs where DJs were becoming stars in their own right. By the late 1980s, much of the talk around EDM was around the club scene in Europe where DJs performed their sets and styles like acid house and trance evolved as the music of the “house.” Several years before they made it as recording artists, many of these performers honed their skills as club DJs. These artists were no longer sampling the records of others but creating their own discs from which they could sample their own sounds. With the emergence of the DJ as musician, you essentially had one person situated on stage creating an enormous amount of automated but live electronic music from their latest array of gadgets. This is house, or trance, dance music. Music called techno, hip-hop, even rap, which use similar technology, rely more on lyrical content and musical changes or styles. At least that’s my oversimplification of it. If you have a solo DJ on stage with an aim to create an immersive, beat-driven, experience in electronic sound, were talking about EDM.
We began by listening to two contemporary examples of EDM, for comparison. We heard Armin Van Buuren’s “Sail” from 2006 followed by Amelie Lens and “Linger On” from 2016. You’ll notice all the elements are present: automated electronics, repetition, music that is beat-driven, a scarcity of lyrics, and some room for solo musicianship.
Amelie Lens is a Belgian artist who produced a whole catalog’s worth of mesmerizing trance music, much of which is styled around minimal vocal loops and repetition as you heard in “Linger On.” Of course, all of this is pre-recorded for live performance, even the vocal loop.
As for Armin Van Buuren's “Sail," you may have noticed traces of Samuel Barber’s "Adagio for Strings," a work for which William Orbit did an arrangement in 2000. Not exactly the same tune, but very similar and with a definitely trance EDM vibe. Note Van Buuren’s piano playing, adding a bit of solo artistry to humanize the automation.
Finding the roots of some of this music is quite interesting because it literally comes from many nations and many styles of music that were beginning to touch on the themes of automation, electronics, repetition, beat-driven, and solo musicianship. Many of these examples have vocals because that was a part of the style of the time, but each of these works stands apart from their contemporaries in that they had a particular focus on the elements we’re looking for as forming the roots of EDM. Dipping back into the 1970s and continuing through the 1980s, we will dip into the archive to find tracks some EDM-related tracks, noting which aspect of EDM each seems to have influenced. Apologies ahead of time for any omissions, and there are many, because of the wide influence of EDM in techno, pop, and other stylings makes it rather impossible to be comprehensive. Rather, by focusing on the persistent beats, electronics, automation, and solo parts you can see the evolution this music from the realm of musical groups to solo DJs.
From Timmy Thomas we heard, “Why Can't We Live Together,” 1972. His use of the drum machine—and strangely robotic drum fills—foretold the influence of drum machines and beats in EDM.
Then we heard three tracks from 1975 and 1977 from Kraftwerk. “Uranium” isn’t such a danceable tune, but the choir sample was later repurposed by New Order in Blue Monday. The tune “Transistor” is much more beat driven and automated, but still includes a substantial vocal. “Europe Endless,” from 1977 has few vocals and began to embrace the trancelike state of their music.
Biddu Orchestra, “Bionic Boogie” from 1976 Epic. A 45 RPM single from the disco era, featuring some electronics in the form of synthesizers. This was a departure for the Biddu Orchestra, which was normally engaged in full disco orchestrations, not the sonic textures of synthesizers, which are heard here, if somewhat overlayed by the other instruments.
Donna Summer, “I Feel Love” 1977 Casablanca). Written and sung by Donna Summer and produced by Giorgio Moroder who produced the automated sound of the Moog Synthesizer. A solid vocal indeed, but the blend of Summer’s voice with the persistently percolating electronics created a mesmerizing trance-like dance music.
We heard two tracks from Space, “Save Your Love For Me” and “Final Signal” from Just Blue, an album released in 1978. Space was a French group, acclaimed for their 1977 UK disco hit "Magic Fly." The first track is in the vein of Donna Summer and has a vocal. The vocals in the second track are more electronic and looped. Both feature synthesizer arrangements that front and center and some solo work that sound like a processed bass guitar and keyboard. So, electronics, minimal vocals, automation, and solos—all the basic elements of EDM without the DJ.
Then we heard a track from Yellow Magic Orchestra’s first album in 1978, “Computer Game (Theme From The Invader)” from Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978 Horizon). Here we have real and electronic drums, synthesized vocals, and a straight-forward set of electronic solos throughout.
Mandré, “M3000 (Opus VI)” from M3000 (1979 Motown). Produced and Arranged By Andre Lewis. Lewis was a keyboardist who went on to collaborate with many artists, not the least of which for Frank Zappa for whom he played keyboards for The Mothers of Invention after the departure of George Duke. This track came out of Motown and has a pulsating, Moroder-like sequenced synthesizer accompanying the group of musicians led by Lewis.
New Order, “Blue Monday” from Blue Monday/The Beach (1983, Factory). New Order was firmly entrenched in the synth-pop dance/crossover genre at that time and this song with its funky samples, mechanical progression and even references to Kraftwerk (the vocal choir loop we heard earlier, places this tune somewhat at the breakout point for EDM going forward. This was the era in which DJs were working clubs and was just a year before Jesse Saunders released “On and On.”
Michel Huygen, “Take Now Music (Extended Instrumental Version)” from Capturing Holograms (1984 jive Electro). Recorded early 1984 in Barcelona (Spain). Composed, performed, produced, and programmed by Belgian born synthesist Michel Huygen, a member of the Spanish group Neuronium in 1976. This song is characteristically electronic and has a stepped-up beat over the more melancholy “Blue Monday.” The absence of vocals also places this a step closer to modern EDM.
Then in 1987, Kraftwerk released The Telephone Call. Listening to this track and you will hear similarities in later work by New Order, particularly the comping synth chords and pattern. Less vocals and more electronics.
Finally, for comparison, we heard New Order and “World (The Price Of Love) (Radio Edit)” from 1993. This was the trademark New Order sound and was in a way the end of an era for techno music as trance, house, and EDM were becoming big.
The Sonic Origins of Electronic Dance Music
1. Jesse Saunders, “On And On” from On and On (1984 Jes Say Records). Possibly the first DJ-created album created as a commercial public release. Produced, Performed, Arranged By Jesse Saunders; written by Jesse Saunders, Vince Lawrence. 8:02
2. Armin Van Buuren, “Sail” from Sail (2006 Armind). This 12” original mix was written by and produced by Armin van Buuren. 7:29
3. Amelie Lens, “Linger On” from Let it Go (2016 Second State). EDM performer and producer from Antwerp, Belgium. 7:41
4. Timmy Thomas, “Why Can't We Live Together,” from Why Can't We Live Together (1972 Glades). Timmy Thomas, Hammond organ and drum machine. Note the rapid-fire drum sequences sprinkled in here and there, a premonition around the future sound of drum machines. 4:38
6. Kraftwerk, “Transistor” from Radioactivity (1975 Kling-Klang). Electronic percussion, Karl Bartos, Wolfgang Flür; Voice, Electronics, Florian Schneider, Ralf Hütter. 3:43
7. Kraftwerk, “Europe Endless” from Trans Europe Express (1977 Kling-Klang). Electronic Drums, Karl Bartos, Wolfgang Flur; Electronics, Voice, Florian Schneider, Ralf Hutter. 9:38
8. Biddu Orchestra, “Bionic Boogie” from Bionic Boogie (1976 Epic). A 45 RPM single from the disco era, featuring some electronics in the form of synthesizers. Biddu was an Indian-British music producer, composer, songwriter and singer. This was a departure for the Biddu Orchestra, which was normally engaged in full disco orchestrations, not the sonic textures of synthesizers, which are heard here, if somewhat overlayed by the other instruments. 2:59
9. Donna Summer, “I Feel Love” from I Remember Yesterday (1977 Casablanca). Written and sung by Donna Summer; produced by and Moog Synthesizer, Giorgio Moroder; Moog Synthesizer, Robby Wedel; Moog Bass, Thor Baldursson; Drums, Percussion, Keith Forsey; Bass, Les Hurdle.5:52
10. Space, “Save Your Love For Me” from Just Blue (1978 Vogue). Space was a French group, created around Didier Marouani (aka Ecama) and Roland Romanelli, acclaimed for their 1977 UK disco hit "Magic Fly." 5:45
11. Space, “Final Signal” from Just Blue (1978 Vogue). Space was a French group, created around Didier Marouani (aka Ecama) and Roland Romanelli. 4:21
12. Yellow Magic Orchestra, “Computer Game (Theme From The Invader)” from Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978 Horizon). Japanese techno band, parallel to later Kraftwerk. Drums, Percussion, Other Electronics, Vocals – Yukihiro Takahashi; Keyboards, Other [Electronics], Percussion, orchestrated by Ryuichi Sakamoto; Produced by Harry Hosono; Micro Composer programmer, Hideki Matsutake. 4:28
13. Mandré, “M3000 (Opus VI)” from M3000 (1979 Motown). Produced and Arranged By Andre Lewis. Lewis was a keyboardist who went on to collaborate with many artists, not the least of which for Frank Zappa for whom he played keyboards for The Mothers of Invention after the departure of George Duke. 5:43
14. New Order, “Blue Monday” from Blue Monday/The Beach (1983, Factory). This was a 12-inch 45 RPM single of the song which became a top seller. New Order was firmly entrenched in the synth-pop dance/crossover genre at that time and this song with its funky samples, mechanical progression and even references to Kraftwerk (the vocal choir heard is indeed a sample from Kraftwerk’s “Uranium” released in 1975 effectively put a few more bricks in the bridge to electronic dance music. 7:27
15. Michel Huygen, “Take Now Music (Extended Instrumental Version)” from Capturing Holograms (1984 jive Electro). Recorded early 1984 in Barcelona (Spain). Composed, performed, produced, and programmed by Belgian born synthesist Michel Huygen, a member of the Spanish group Neuronium in 1976. 5:34
16. Kraftwerk, “Der Telefon Anruf (German Version)” from The Telephone Call (1987 EMI). Listen to this track and you will hear similarities in later work by New Order, particularly the comping synth chords and pattern. 3:47
17. New Order, “World (The Price Of Love) (Radio Edit)” from World. (The Price Of Love) (1993 London Records). CD single of the track also found on the album Republic (1993 London Records). This sounds as if New Order is still thanking Kraftwerk for their inspiration. 3:39
Opening background music:
New Order, “Confusion (Instrumental)” (1983 Streetwise). Mixed by Arthur Baker and John "Jellybean" Benitez. New Order's sixth single and their first collaboration with Arthur Baker. Released August 22, 1983.